Canada is the second largest country in the world, with a population nearing 32 million. The country has a government-funded, national healthcare system based on the Canadian Health Act. The principles of this law are to provide a health service that is universally available to permanent residents, is without income barriers, has comprehensive coverage, is portable within Canada and elsewhere, and is administered publicly.
The Federal Government, through the taxpayer, subsidizes the health system, though each province is responsible for its own healthcare system.
Overview of healthcare in Canada
Canadian provinces and territories are responsible for administering their own healthcare plans. Each must provide their residents with prepaid cover for all necessary medical services. These include financing, planning, providing medical care, hospital care, public healthcare, and dispensing prescriptions. Cover for dental treatment, optometric services, prescription drugs, hearing aids, and home care vary per province and territory.
Health policies, under the Canadian Health Act, are portable primarily within Canada, while a partial reimbursement is available for treatment outside the country. This system is made possible by funds from the federal government as well as the provincial and territorial governments. Personal and corporate income taxes are the main source of revenue, while some provinces charge residents an annual healthcare premium based on their yearly income.
Access to the healthcare system
Canada, as a whole, provides a free, basic, healthcare system for its citizens and all legal residents. This usually includes access to a family doctor and emergency care or basic hospital treatment. Some provinces like Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario charge their residents healthcare tax for this very purpose. The Canadian Health Act of 1984 states that prescription drugs and supplies are provided free in hospitals, most of the time. This is dependant on you staying in the hospital as an in-patient.
Costs begin to accumulate when you are no longer staying in the hospital and begin purchasing your own prescription drugs and medical supplies. Specialist drugs can be very expensive for one course of treatment, while other medical services such as physiotherapy, massage therapy, chiropractic treatments and dental treatment are not covered.
If you work in the country, your employer may offer you a package that includes cover for prescription drugs, up to 80% of the cost, and services like physiotherapy and chiropractic treatment. Again, qualifications for free services vary in each province. If you are not satisfied with your benefits package, or would like to improve it, you can purchase your own insurance policy.
Challenges with Canadian healthcare
The quality of healthcare varies from province to province. In the rural communities and those further up north, healthcare is a step behind its southern counterparts. As such, there are concerns about discrepancies in the level of government funding and the overall quality of the healthcare being offered.
The Canadian Healthcare Association has pointed out several areas in the healthcare system that need to be improved. These include overall healthcare funding, patient waiting times, the improvement of medical technology, shortages in personnel, home and long-term care. The major issue in all of these is the level of waiting times among patients to see specialists, undergo elective surgery, or get diagnostic tests. According to the Fraser Institute, waiting times have increased from 13.1 weeks in 1999 to 17.9 weeks in 2004. Crowded emergency rooms are an indication of the severity of this problem.
There has also been the occurrence of a "brain drain" in the healthcare profession. This is where nurses leave the country to seek greener pastures in the United States, which can result in a shortage of personnel. Incidents of negligence, or errors in treatment, have also raised concerns about Canada’s healthcare system.
The brighter side of Canadian healthcare
In 2004, the federal government and the provinces came up with a C$41-billion (US$34.2-billion), 10-year agreement aimed at improving Canada's healthcare system. A major part of this agreement is an attempt to reduce waiting times; a “Wait Times Reduction Fund” has been drafted in order to allow provinces to hire more healthcare professionals, increase their capacity, clear backlogs, and increase ambulatory and community care programs. The provinces are ready to set targets for acceptable wait times and will establish a common set of criteria to gauge wait times across Canada.
The bottom line with Canadian healthcare
Overall, Canadians are generally satisfied with the standards of living in the country; this includes the state of their healthcare. A Joint Canada/United States Survey of Health, carried out in 2002-2003 by Statistics Canada and the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, stated that 87% of Canadians are “somewhat” to “very satisfied” with their healthcare services. The evaluation criterion on health was based on personal safety, quality and availability of hospitals, medical care and medical supplies. Despite the difficulties, the healthcare system bodes well for Canadian residents and expatriates.